Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock InLock In by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the John Scalzi's latest book. It's a bit of a departure from the other books I've read of his, but he was visiting Saratoga Springs on his tour to promote it, so I thought I'd give it a listen. Audible gave me copies narrated by Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson with my pre-order, and I decided arbitrarily to listen to Ms. Benson's version.

Lock In takes place in a near future that could've been post-apocalyptic. A virus that first manifests with flu-like symptoms has forever changed the world. Not in its decreasing the population, though that is a thing. Some percentage of survivors of Haden's syndrome are locked in, bodily paralyzed but fully aware of everything going on around them. The story opens 25 years later, after the technology to adapt Hadens (the shorthand for those locked in) to normal society is so well established, the government is cutting funding for further research.

Our perspective character is Chris Shane, the child of a former basketball star, and brand new FBI agent. Shane was afflicted with Haden's very young, and can't remember ever moving around in a human body. Instead, Shane became the public face of Haden's, and those struggling to integrate into normal society with the adaptations created for them. Shane is assigned to a special Haden unit within the FBI, and immediately has a case, on top of security for planned rallies protesting the aforementioned legislation.

Shane's gender is never given within the story, and, believe me, I listened. Shane is always called "Agent Shane," never Mr. or Ms., and Chris is Marcus Shane's child, not son or daughter. Even the scene where Shane looks down on the lifeless body technology frees Shane from, there's no physical marker, no remark on the body's attractiveness, no descriptor of hair length or necessary personal grooming. Part of it is that Shane doesn't appear to identify with the body lying in the cradle. Shane has lived through the movements of a threep (a sort of personal robot Hadens can use to move around and experience life) for so long, the shape of the flesh Shane was born into doesn't seem to matter.

This adds a layer of meta to the story. Because, while Shane is integrated with the threep to experience the world, the reader is integrated with Shane, who's a blank slate. Reading as an analogue for integration is an easier explanation to wrap one's mind around than any amount the narrative might've offered. It's a much easier leap.

Scalzi peppers in a lot of other descriptors that make it easier to grasp Shane's experience. The first time Shane compares the threep to a car, it clicked into place for me: necessary to get around, an extension of yourself if you're comfortable enough with the technology, expensive and far from disposable, but not the end of the world if it's damaged. With such easy imagery, Scalzi makes this world seem very real.

That it's grounded very much in modern politics and attitudes also makes suspension of disbelief that much easier. I work with people with disabilities. I've seen very similar attitudes to the ones Shane encounters, and some of the conversations are, word-for-word, ones I've had with employers about the people I advocate for. The attitude that allows the gutting of funding for Haden's research is the same attitude that has our funding sources dwindling while people shout about wasteful Medicaid spending. The dehumanization experienced by Hadens is a sad reflection of how I see the population I represent perceived.

As much as the story wouldn't exist without Haden's, it's not about Haden's. It's an exciting mystery in its own right, populated with multifaceted and compelling characters. Shane might be genderfluid, but that doesn't mean every aspect of Shane's character is so hard to pin down. This is a smart, snarky character who views disability as just a facet of self, and one open to self-deprecating jabs. The story rests on Shane's very capable shoulders, even if they are made of machine parts.

This story works on so many levels. I was deeply impressed. It's a neat concept, taken to some intriguing places, with some well-thought-out worldbuilding. It's a futuristic police procedural filled with surprises. It's a character study about disability and what a mind can handle and what some people are capable of. Mostly, it's an entertaining story, with a low cost of admission. You don't need a degree in epidemiology to understand Haden's, nor do you need engineering or programming background to get the concept of threeps and integration. You can just pick up this story and enjoy the many levels it works on. Or, you can just enjoy the story for what it is.

And I'm not just saying that because of how appreciative Mr. Scalzi was of the apple cider doughnuts I brought him from Bella Napoli when I saw him on tour.

As I noted above, I listened to this with Amber Benson's narration. I don't know if it would've been that different with Wheaton's, but she did a wonderful reading. She captured Shane's voice superbly. If I hadn't been listening so closely for gender markers, I would've been convinced that she'd been hired because she was the closest human analogue to Chris Shane. It was an excellent reading experience. I recommend it.


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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: The Hot Zone (Rainshadow, #3; Harmony, #11) by Jayne Castle

The Hot Zone (Rainshadow, #3; Harmony, #11)The Hot Zone by Jayne Castle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is another book read for a book club, and quite possibly the straw that broke the camel's back. I can't keep clogging up my reading time with this tripe. My to-read is 773 items long, for crying out loud.

This is the third book in a series, the eleventh in a larger series. It follows Sedona Snow, recent kidnapping escapee, and Cyrus Jones, guy in charge of an organization Sedona has every reason to mistrust.

Maybe I'd've liked this better if I'd read the earlier books. This gave very little context. I managed to glean that they were on an alien world, that the world brings out psychic abilities in everyone, and that Lyle is some otherworldly critter whose abilities are whatever the plot needs him for, called a dust bunny by all the characters. Beyond that, I just had to trust that all the world-building elements had been established in earlier books. So, if nothing else, this book showed me the importance of catching a reader up in a series as if they haven't been following from the start.

The book might've worked on the strength of the relationship between Cyrus and Sedona, but, no. It's pretty formula romance: circumstances throw them into close proximity, there's tension, there are reasons to resist, they're all over each other, then they're in love. A lot of their reasons for being drawn to one another hinge on their psychic abilities, so it was beyond me.

The writing stood out as clumsy and artless, too. For all their "as you know, Bob," dialogue, the characters might've bothered to catch me up on what I needed to know about the world. Instead, they clunked around about a mystery I didn't particularly care about, and that doesn't come into play until the last 50 pages. The pacing needed work.

Normally, I might've gone back to read earlier books, to pick up on the context I missed. I won't punish myself with more of this author. This is one, in all her various pseudonyms, to stay far, far away from.

At least now I can say for sure I've tried out paranormal romance, and it's definitely not my thing.


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Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Journey to the Center of the Earth: A Signature Performance by Tim CurryJourney to the Center of the Earth: A Signature Performance by Tim Curry by Jules Verne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another of those classics you almost don't have to read. The main points are already such a part of popular culture that reading it is mostly a matter of waiting to see when each part will come up. Still, when I saw it was narrated by Tim Curry, I thought it worth a shot.

The story opens with the discovery of a strange document inside the pages of an old book which brags of a journey through the planet, undertaken some centuries before. Our reluctant protagonist is talked into joining his uncle, the intrepid Professor Lidenbrock, on his own such exploration. Lidenbrock is a geologist, and believes the journey is possible, while Axel holds to scientific convention that says the Earth is full of magma. Of course modern science has borne out Axel's view, but it would be a short book if Lidenbrock didn't turn out to be correct. His theory is sound, by the scientific knowledge of the time.

The book's greatest value lies in its snapshot of scientific inquiry during Verne's time. Verne extrapolates several suppositions, based on the scientific knowledge he's working with. There are several points where he flirts with the truth (he dances all around the theory of continental drift, for instance), only to fall short because he lacks a crucial piece of later discovery. The fantastic creatures the explorers find living underground say a lot about the fossil records that existed then.

The story is fairly straightforward: Axel and his uncle go to Iceland, hire a guide, find the entrance the long-ago explorer used, and travel as far down through the earth as they can before circumstances force them to surface. Most of the narrative involves what Axel sees, rather than what he does. When he does make a decision, it's often the worst one possible. The greatest danger he faces is when he's separated from his uncle and the guide, and his light goes out.

So it's not the most exciting narrative. Still, it's interesting to see Verne's various theories about what an underground explorer might see, and how he came to those conclusions. There were times when I hoped the characters would move toward sources of danger, just to spice up the narrative a bit, but these characters were far too prudent for that.

If it hadn't been Tim Curry reading this to me, I wouldn't have soldiered through it. He adds a much-needed spark to the story. His narration is dynamic, and was often the only reason I kept listening. It was nice to experience this book for myself, but I would've felt the slog a lot more keenly in a print version.


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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt

Thief of Shadows (Maiden Lane, #4)Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is the latest in my quest to find a romance novel that doesn't make me roll my eyes. While it had promise, the idea behind it is silly, and it was determined to take away everything I liked about it.

The premise of the book is that the Ghost of St. Giles runs around in a harlequin costume by night, protecting the weak and rescuing kidnapped urchins. By day, he's the mild-mannered Winter Makepeace, headmaster of a school for orphaned children.

And why does he go about in a costume and mask, risking his life? So he can meet Lady Isabel Beckinhall when she rescues him from an angry mob, brings him home, and strips him naked (except the mask, of course) to treat his wounds. Several more fortunate coincidences throw these two together, and the tension grows. She tells him how sad she is she can't have kids, and why there's a boy who isn't her kid running around her house. He tells her why he's a virgin, and plans on staying one. (Guess how long that one sticks. Go on. Guess.)

I could believe these two liked each other by the end of the book, though his quick study in the bedroom had me raising an eyebrow. I could believe he'd question his life as the Ghost in light of his relationship. What I couldn't believe was how easily she made the sacrifices she did for the relationship. It robbed her of a lot of the things that made her such a strong character. I'm all for compromise in a relationship, but must romance novels always end with the heroine losing herself in the hero?

I also feel that, if there's a beta hero in a story, the author should let him be a beta. Stop reminding us how virile he is. Stop making the heroine swoon under his power. There are plenty of alpha male stories that cover those tropes. Let the beta male show his strength in recognizing and respecting the heroine's.

If you like historical romance with a masked hero, and you read a broad range of romance with no quibbles with the tropes, this one will suit you fine. It's a story about a beta finding his inner alpha by putting on a mask, until the woman draws it out of him. Personally, I don't find the transformation an improvement.


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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: The Winter Long (October Daye #8) by Seanan McGuire

The Winter Long (October Daye, #8)The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in Seanan McGuire's October Daye series. I think I say every time that they get better with each installation, but, well, it's true. McGuire does her homework, building intrigue and tension into earlier books that pay off handsomely with each new installment.

The Winter Long opens with the Winter Solstice ball, and Toby's official designation as the realm's hero. No sooner has she dropped into bed to recover from her long night of social obligations than she gets a visit from Simon Torquill, brother to Toby's liege and the one responsible for her spending 14 years as a fish. He wants to help her, only his definition of "help" is wanting to turn her into a tree for the next century so she can't be killed.

There are a number of reveals in this book that have been building for 7 books, and that I won't spoil if you haven't yet had the pleasure. Toby's nemesis is all the more formidable for blindsiding Toby. Alliances shift, relationships change, Toby empathizes with characters she had every reason to hate, and the Luidaeg gets to step outside her snarky-cryptic-adviser role to show off why she's the subject of parents' warnings and children's nightmares.

If a young writer asked me how to write foreshadowing, I would plunk down this series and say, "Get reading." All of the shocking reveals have been telegraphed from the start, yet they still blindside us, because Toby was (and we were) off investigating this shiny clue over here. As I posted elsewhere, McGuire was dropping breadcrumbs while we were following the shiny stones.

Everyone's favorite Cait Sidhe is here, backing Toby up and lending emergency transportation through the Shadow Roads, and providing much-needed levity. His role at the end of the book is probably the least surprising reveal, but it's a pleasant surprise.

The pacing of this book is lightning fast. The bulk of it takes place over a period of 24 hours. The only reason Toby stops is because she's unconscious. That's not a spoiler, because, of course she is. She tests the very limits of her magical abilities (and her body's blood capacity). She's far from the strongest magic user in Faerie, but she's probably the most determined.

There are hints of things to come in future books. I suspect we'll see some way of getting around Elf-shot, because Rayseline and her break with reality is too good to let lie. Er, no pun intended. And there's plenty stirred up by Simon's return that needs addressing. Lastly, the series can't come to a close without Toby having conversation or three with her mother, Amandine.

Beyond that, I won't make any predictions, because this series is too good to pick apart with speculation. It's best enjoyed when you trust McGuire to do what the story needs, and wait to see what that is. I'm still going to take note of clues I pick up along the way, because chances are good they'll pay off nicely, but I'm not going to cling to my predictions. I like how she handles them better every time.

If you're not reading this series yet, go pick up Rosemary and Rue, then
  A Local Habitation

, and so on until you're caught up. I'll wait. Because I need more people in my life I can talk to about my love for these books. They're so much fun. You don't hate fun, do you?

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